Look at what the new world hath wrought ~from A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry
Two years ago, I had dinner at a local place in Alexandria, Virginia. As is commonplace for me, I asked the waiter, a thin, olive-skinned, curly haired young man to repeat his name.
“It’s Mo,” he said.
I took note of each of his features. “You don’t look like a Mo.”
“Well, if you knew my real name, you’d say the same thing.”
Mo continued to answer our questions, this time about the menu and its oddities. As soon as he finished, I started back in.
“So, are you gonna share your real name with us?”
Mo then told us that his name was Mohammad. It was actually Mohammad, middle name: Arab, last name: Arab. Mo’s entire name is Arab. He joked about how difficult it was to fly and how it just minimized quite a bit of confusion for him to go by Mo.
I’m not sure if Mo realized how uncomfortable he looked explaining his identity to me, a stranger. And I totally understand that his uncomfortableness could have been due to an unknown patron engaging him about his “real” name, an unexpected topic for a server. Whatever the reason, it was clear that Mo was a bit squirmy.
But that’s when I felt compassion for him.
I go by Kathy, but when someone asks me my “real” name, I simply (and proudly) state that it is Katherin…no “e” at the end, Elizabeth, Garland. No hesitation. My name doesn’t accompany jokes about societal judgments, cast just because I want to do something that people do everyday…fly. I can speak my name with pride. It is a small privilege with big benefits for my so-called American life. I can speak my name without assumptions. No one (as far as I know) has made prejudiced jokes and committed microagressions towards me because of my name. I’ve never been ashamed to tell someone my name. In fact, there have been several occasions where I meet another Cathy/Kathy/Kathie/Cathie/Katie and we marvel over the unique spellings of not just our full names, but also others.
And then I felt a bit of sadness for Mo. I felt sad because your name, no matter if you love it or hate it, is a part of your identity. Your name, aside from your actual presence is one of the first things that people learn about you and who you are in the world. To not be able to speak your name, with pride, is in essence a form of shame.
That is what saddened me.
It is my hope that Mo and everyone in our country will one day have the strength to shed societal shame and speak our names with pride, no matter what we believe the name conveys. How free are we really if we can’t do something as simple as announce our names for fear of being judged? I’d say that we’re not really that free at all. What do you think?